Writing and memory

When studying, making notes is often something you do instead of memorizing information. While some of the information will stick in your mind, most of it will remain on paper or screen. When you need to use the information, in conversation, for example, if you’re studying a language, or maybe in an exam, you won’t necessarily be able to check your notes. Cramming before exams will fill your short term memory with the information, but most of it will melt away after, during or before the exams.

This is why I don’t take many notes any more when studying languages. Instead, I try to memorize as much as possible. I used to take notes and have many notebooks full of vocabulary and grammar notes, but can only remember of fraction of that information. It’s as if my brain decides that it doesn’t need to remember things once they’ve been written.

If you are unable to read and write, have problems with reading and/or writing, such as dyslexia, or if there is no written form of your language, you have to rely partly or totally on your memory. In such cases your memory is probably better than those of us who use writing as an extension of our memories, because memory tends to improve the more you use it.

Even where writing is available, some choose not to use it. For example, in India a huge corpus of Vedic texts has been memorized and transmitted orally from generation to generation in an unbroken tradition dating from about 500BC to the present day. One of the sacred duties of the Brahmins is to memorize and recite these texts.

Among the ancient Celts, writing was prohibited, or used only to a very limited extent. Instead they relied on memorization, and to make this possible, much of their knowledge was transmitted from one generation to another in the form of songs and poems – rhythm and rhyme are powerful aids to memory. Julius Caesar was impressed with the way the Gauls memorized enormous amounts of information, and commented:

It is said that [the Druids] have to memorize a great number of verse – so many, that some of them spend twenty years at their studies. The Druids believe that their religion forbids them to commit their teachings to writing, although for most other purposes, such as public and private accounts, the Gauls use the Greek alphabet. But I imagine that this rule was originally established for other reasons – because they did not want their doctrine to become public property, and in order to prevent their pupils from relying on the written word and neglecting to train their memories; for it is usually found that when people have the help of texts, they are less diligent in learning by heart, and let their memories rust.

Source: http://www.celticcorner.com/language.html

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13 Responses to Writing and memory

  1. TJ says:

    I remember once I read in some webpage, that Celts believed in the magic of the spoken word, for this reason they didn’t write their own language. I also read that they were excellent language learners and could speak several languages and write them, but never wrote their own. Unfortunately they are classified by some people as “barbarians.” Anyway, what I read also and still I can’t digest it very well, is that, they say that Celts taught greeks and romans the meaning of “poem” and taught them how to compose them and such an art was not founded in both cultures before their contact with the Celts. Also they say Virgil was in fact of celtic origin. I wonder how much truth has this in it!?

  2. Thomas Maska says:

    Well, the Greeks would call them ‘barbarians” because they called all non-greek speakers that. (Because to a Greek, their language would sound like “bar bar bar bar” their equivalent to “blah blah blah blah.”)

  3. Polly says:

    In my case, I have found that writing actually multiplies my ability to remember anything and everything, including foreign vocabulary. It’s as if the proactive action of writing as opposed to the passive action of reading alone, forces my mind to rehearse what I just learned. Plus, you’re attacking two apects of learning at once. Also, there is more mechanical and mental effort involved in the cooperation between mind and body when writing than when speaking; it’s less natural and takes more focus. I sometimes take pages of notes only to toss them into the trash shortly thereafter, because, the purpose wasn’t originally to keep them for review (I never do) but to exercise my focus.
    The better my handwriting in note-taking, the better I remember.

  4. Simon says:

    Polly – I’m not attacking any aspects of learning. My main point is that writing doesn’t always help you to remember things.

    On the other hand, the physical activity of writing can build physical memories, and seeing things written down can build visual memories. When learning to read and write Chinese and Japanese for example, the process of writing the characters and being able to visualize them helped me to remember them.

  5. balindsey says:

    > My main point is that writing doesn’t always help you to remember
    > things.

    But doesn’t it? The key word being ‘help.’ It has to be combined with other things.

  6. TJ says:

    I believe Simon is right. Sometimes it is beneficial to not write, while in other cases it helps. In our schools teachers usually tell us to write down the poem that must memorize for the test for several times until we completely save it in our memories. On the other hand, there are some cases when you really need to train your memory (especially if you’re not a shorthand literate!). For myself I don’t really write down everything in the lecture, simply because I don’t know how to write it in clear words, so it comes the memory part (combined with imagination to make memorizing easier, like making combosites of initials to make a sentence that helps you memorize an equation or something in certain order like the rainbow colors, ROY G BIV).
    But does the preferred method of study and taking notes or memorizing depend heavily on the dominant hemisphere of person’s brain? Any suggestions?

  7. Polly says:

    Hello Simon. Actually, when I said “you” I meant that when ONE is writing one is attacking(engaging in) two forms of learning at once.
    Sorry for any confusion.

  8. Armen says:

    When I copy notes, especially for French class, I don’t need to spend anymore time memorizing the material. It just sticks. I think I have a photographic memory. I still remember number charts from 1-100 in kindergarten when doing math.

    Can anyone explain this? The way the brain works and memory and all is really cool.

  9. Steven Butler says:

    Armen: I’m no expert on the psychology of learning by any means, and there are entire schools of study based on it, but from what I understand it comes down to the various ways in which our brains learn. It varys from person to person, really, with some being extremely visually oriented (which is obviously the case for you) while others may focus more on motion (kinetic) or sounds (auditory). There are more variations, but those are generally accepted as the three main types. Learning environments and brain chemistry make the most difference in what type of learner you are. I, because of deficient hearing, learn much better through kinetics with the aid of visuals, while I suspect Simon is much more auditory. It’s stuff like that.

  10. In memorizing anything new, including foreign words, the input (i.e. the data) will linger at first in the so-called short-term memory, a neural circuit that enables to remember what has been stored in it for no more than a couple of minutes (normally, 30-60 seconds), unless the data are ‘rehearsed’ in some way. Rehearsal implies further input from other parts of the brain involved in activities such as reading, writing, hearing, speaking, thinking, etc. These accessory activities not only cause the electric stimuli involved in the memorization process to reverberate (i.e. run a number of times) through the nerve cells that form the circuit, allowing the short-term memory not to lose within a few seconds what has been recently stored in it, but also provide what are called ‘associations’, i.e. extra data related in some way to what has been memorized.
    After some time, the brain will transfer the collected data to a further functional storage circuit called long-term memory, where they will be preserved for a very long time, virtually for one’s entire life. However, once the data are there, in order to retrieve them correctly the brain needs to use the aforesaid associations, almost in the same way bookmarks are needed to find given pages in a book. Any disturbance (a brain damage, a nervous disease, etc.) might destroy the ‘bookmarks’, hindering the retrieval of data, although they are still stored in the long-term memory circuit.
    In simple words, one may think of the short-term memory as the PC’s RAM, while the long-term memory is the hard disk.
    The passage from one type of memory to the other is influenced by a great number of factors, some of which cannot be helped in any way (genetic predisposition, age, etc.), while others (rehearsing, reading, writing, etc.) depend on one’s own behaviour. The time needed to achieve a steady memorization is therefore unpredictable.
    One important factor is also how much one is interested in what he/she is trying to learn: the greater the interest, the shorter the time needed for the data to be stored in the long-term memory.

  11. BiSHoP says:

    Don’t tell the folks in England, but the folks in Canada are only pretending. They might speak to the monarchy over there, but they have a queen over here. She must be royalty. Not only is she called the Quipping Queen, her name is Victoria Elizabeth. You can’t get more stately than a name like that.

  12. AsKaNiO says:

    In our schools teachers usually tell us to write down the poem that must memorize for the test for several times until we completely save it in our memories. On the other hand, there are some cases when you really need to train your memory. For myself I don’t really write down everything in the lecture, simply because I don’t know how to write it in clear words.

  13. Ken Dryden says:

    I see writings as a meta-memory: the memory of collectivity. But they are part of a whole system of memories. This system start with the DNA: the primal memory of the Nature. Then we have brain’s neurons: the primal memory of many living creatures. Eventually we created something called writings: the primal memory of our societies.